Whichever way you look at it, two emphatic wins over Argentina over the next two Saturdays will be required if the Boks are to go to the tournament with any kind of winning momentum. Any perspective on the South African preparations that is taken only from the results of the matches played in the Rugby Championship would be a negative one.
However, when the Boks started out on this international season, it might have been fitting the selection jigsaw puzzle pieces together that was more of a priority for coach Heyneke Meyer than the outcome of matches played.
And in that sense, the past few weeks have been a resounding success, with Meyer’s honest acknowledgement that Jaque Fourie is now unlikely to be selected for the World Cup representing a game-changing moment when it comes to the selection outlook.
The veteran was in the mix because Meyer felt there was a shortage of centres. Just a few short weeks ago, at the end of the Super Rugby season, the midfield was an area where the quest was to find players who could do the job in what looked a relatively bare cupboard.
At that stage we still weren’t sure of whether Jean de Villiers would be ready, and only a few had recognised the potential for Jesse Kriel to play and perform at outside centre.
We’ll know more about De Villiers’ readiness to play in the World Cup after Saturday’s comeback game for him in Durban. But Kriel has proved a revelation, and has joined Damian de Allende in adding considerably to Meyer’s options at No 12 and No 13.
There may still be some rightful concern about lack of experience, and that has been intensified by the probable non-availability of Frans Steyn after a family bereavement, but that might not be critical if De Villiers plays.
There was more to Fourie’s return to Japan after the first two weeks of the training camp building up to the World Cup than just his lack of conditioning. I’ve heard that there is an availability issue related to his club, Kolbeco Steelers.
However, Meyer would have been more reluctant to let Fourie go if it wasn’t for the depth that has now been developed in the midfield since De Allende and Kriel have taken their opportunities and proved their readiness for international rugby.
At yesterday’s pre-match captain’s press conference in Durban, De Villiers agreed that there has been a massive shift in the selection directive since the season started.
“It’s no longer about looking for players to select, but about deciding who to leave out,” De Villiers said.
In other words, it’s about cutting, and there are some tough decisions to make even in areas where previously it may have seemed there was a dearth in talent.
That is most notably the case at lock, where Victor Matfield’s status as a certain selection might have started to come under threat now were it not for the fact that everyone knows Meyer sees the presence of his lineout expertise and experience as a non-negotiable.
With the coaches required to include nine front-row forwards in their 31-man group, the second row complement for the Bok World Cup squad could be just three, with blindside flank Willem Alberts, if he comes through his fitness examination ahead of the tournament, providing additional cover.
Lood de Jager has played out of his skin in his two Test match appearances this season, and another highly talented youngster, Pieter-Steph du Toit, will have his claims added to the mix when he gets on to the field for the Boks on Saturday for the first time in nearly two years.
It looks likely that one of he or De Jager will join Flip van der Merwe in being cut when the World Cup squad is announced in a couple of weeks. Whoever misses out would probably not let the Boks down and could consider himself unlucky.
The pool of ball-scavenging loose forwards has also grown in the past few weeks, with Heinrich Brüssow, Marcell Coetzee and Francois Louw all making significant contributions, which could make for an interesting debate if Alberts returns and presents Meyer with the option of his previous back-row configuration built around a big ball carrier at No 7.
De Villiers, who himself feels he is under pressure to perform after the excellent showing of the young midfield in his absence, is right - there are going to be some quality players left out of the squad.
Original source: Even Jean fears he may not make the cut